We’ve talked about and worked on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within organizations for years. These programs focus on hiring more women, diversifying boards, tracking who gets stretch assignments and advancement opportunities, and creating sponsorship/mentorship programs to level the playing field and create new pathways for those who have been underrepresented.
DEI has been in the news lately. A question I read recently was: “Is DEI here to make people feel bad about themselves?”
No, it isn’t! DEI isn’t about making some people feel good, and other people feel bad. It isn’t a zero-sum game. Done right, DEI is a lived value within companies and organizations. It creates greater fairness within systems and structures, wider representation in the rooms where decisions are made, and deeper awareness and recognition of what it takes to build and maintain the kind of workplace culture where everyone feels welcomed.
The words “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion” all refer to different things:
Diversity: This is the representation of all our varied identities and differences as humans (race/ethnicity, gender, gender identity, ability/disability, sexual orientation, country of birth and immigration status, tribe, socio-economic status, veteran status, neurological differences, etc.). An example of diversity efforts is ensuring that a broad variety of individuals and experiences is represented at all levels of an organization.
Equity: This refers to fair treatment and fair access to opportunities, information, power, and resources. Equity is only possible in an environment built on respect and dignity, where status quo power dynamics are examined and mindfully changed to bring forth the perspectives and contributions of everyone. One example is ensuring an equitable compensation structure so that individuals doing the same job are paid similar salaries.
Inclusion: This is a culture and sense of belonging, which is built by actively inviting the contribution and participation of everyone in an environment of respect and connection. In this way, all ideas, backgrounds, and perspectives are harnessed. Inclusion is experienced. Staff members often assess inclusion by asking themselves, “Are the words and actions of our leaders around DEI aligned?” An example of inclusive practices is engaging groups of staff in decision-making.
It is important that companies and organizations decide for themselves what DEI means within the context of their workplace culture, staff, business, and clients. The more specific, the better! This clarity is achieved through dialogue between staff and leadership, work planning, examination of staff survey feedback, a review of market data, a willingness to explore and challenge status quo patterns of power, and linking DEI to corporate/organizational values. For example, an organization could ascertain that it needs to appoint more women into positions of senior management. Another may decide that it is time to diversify into new market segments and attract a wider client base. These are clear aspirations around which programs, budgets, and targets can be set and progress tracked.
There are two other important elements to consider here:
The first is to use data to track and measure what you want to change or improve in DEI. Numbers are important to keep the conversation grounded in facts and to track progress meaningfully. We do this in all areas of work, from strategy to sales, so why not in DEI?
The second element is that DEI takes time to take root and flourish. This is not something to commit to for one or two years. DEI is not a one-off effort. Meaningful evolution involves a long-term commitment. It’s a marathon, not a sprint! Patience and persistence are keys.
At the end of the day, the value of DEI is best expressed through the following:
- Values, norms, and behaviors that guide your organization;
- Individual experiences of employees, customers, community members, and stakeholders;
- Work culture and staff policies within the organization;
- Services and products that are designed, rolled out, and implemented;
- Reputation, the organization holds in the eyes of the clients, communities, and stakeholders served;
- Consistency, courage, and clarity of internal and external communications;
- Measurement of impact;
- Leaders’ willingness to embrace change and explore blind spots and assumptions;
- Capacity of staff and leaders to engage in the discomfort of courageous conversations;
- Diverse and representative top leadership team and board; and
- Regular and thorough examination of systems, processes, and practices for bias.
Committing ourselves to diverse, equitable, and inclusive corporations/organizations, work practices, and work cultures is worthy work. Like most endeavors that are worthwhile, they don’t necessarily come easy! It takes effort, vision, awareness, clarity, and values-based leadership.